The Papua New Guinea (PNG) Defence Force was given a traditional farewell on Saturday as it prepares to leave East Gippsland this week.
Members of the PNG Australia Association of Victoria travelled from Melbourne to Omeo to cook up a feast for the troops to say thanks for helping out with the bushfire recovery effort. For the past month, 98 PNG troops have been assisting the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and emergency service personnel in cleaning up East Gippsland following the bushfires.
Mostly engineers from Lae, the capital of Morobe Province, in Papua New Guinea, the troops have been busy felling dangerous trees, clearing roads of debris, removing burnt fencing and rendering assistance where needed.
Victoria’s PNG community wanted to show its gratitude and give them a send off they wouldn’t forget by cooking for them and performing native dances.
About 30 members of the community drove overnight from Melbourne to reach Omeo in the early hours of the morning.
“We’re so proud of them, they’ve done a great job helping the ADF with the bushfire recovery effort (Operation Bushfire Assist) and we just wanted to say thanks,” Rebecca Atagomo said.
“When we heard they were about to leave Omeo, we wanted to come and make mumu, eat together and say goodbye to them.
“We also want to thank the Australian Army for looking after them.” Mumu is a traditional dish from PNG, prepared in an earth oven by digging a hole in the ground that is filled with hot stones.
On Saturday, troops dug a hole in the ground at the Omeo Caravan Park, where they’ve been staying, and placed a whole pig in the earth oven with coconut milk and bananas before covering it with foil.
River stones, collected from the Livingstone Creek, were used to heat the oven and within an hour the pork was done.
PNG troops also supervised a lamb on a spit while vegetables were cooked in the traditional aigir method.
The hungry PNG and ADF troops were treated to a huge Saturday luncheon, which the local community was also invited to join in.
A traditional PNG dance was performed before the feast while a game of cricket followed the lunch and was enjoyed by everyone in attendance.
Commander of the Joint Task Force (646), Brigadier Matthew Burr, who has overseen all ADF bushfire recovery efforts in Victoria, flew in for the festivities.
He said that the community would ultimately be the judge of whether the army’s presence had been a success.
Brigadier Burr said the ADF was well prepared and well trained to assist civilian agencies in emergency response. Many of the troops in East Gippsland had been involved in the aftermath of the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009.
“The ADF, and I’m sure the Australian public, is overwhelmingly thankful for the involvement of the PNG Defence Force and the Fijian assistance to the ADF,” he said.
“It’s been a true partnership. Previously we’ve operated with the PNG troops on many projects and training exercises and unfortunately in the past the ADF has had to respond to humanitarian assistance and disaster response in those nations.
“This has been one of those times when our partner in Papua New Guinea has been able to reciprocate and it’s been extremely welcomed by the ADF.”
Brigadier Burr said both the ADF and PNG troops had worked extremely hard and had been committed in their role in supporting the community.
“Nothing fills me with more pride than seeing those soldiers have a sense of service in what they’re doing and having a real purpose to what they’re doing,” he said.
“Their work has been hard, it’s been in a hazardous environment, but I think they’ve done it with a true sense of purpose and they’ve made me very proud with what they’ve achieved.”
Brigadier Burr said real friendships had been forged between the ADF and PNG Defence Force and the troops had learned from one another.
“It’s been an outstanding opportunity for both nations to share experiences and share skills and take away true friendships from the actual operation.” Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner, Andrew Crisp, was also in Omeo to thank the troops for their work.
Commissioner Crisp shares a special bond with PNG having been based on the Pacific island in the early 90s as a training adviser for the PNG Police Force (RPNGC).
He said both the ADF and PNG Defence Force had done an important job in restoring community confidence during Operation Bushfire Assist.
“What we see are very well skilled soldiers and engineers that bring those technical skills, but at the same time what they bring is a uniform and that presence, that community confidence. I think they’ve done so well being in the community,” Commissioner Crisp said.
“I think we get double the bang for our buck with that community confidence as well as those technical skills.”
Federal Member for Gippsland, Darren Chester, was spotted lining up with the troops for a serve of the traditional PNG food.
He later addressed the PNG Defence Force and ADF and thanked them for their service in East Gippsland.
Mr Chester said he was feeling fine after collapsing in the Federal Parliament last week.
For many of the PNG troops it was their first visit to Australia.
IMAGE: Members of the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Australia Association provided a traditional mumu for the PNG Defence Force at Omeo on Saturday. The event was enjoyed by the Australian Defence Force and members of the local community. K147-5003